BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - MARCH 29: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Messages Toyota, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Busch Light Ford, talk on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 29, 2021 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Long betting odds tell the story of struggling pre-season favorites Harvick, Busch

Kevin Harvick, who came into the 2021 NASCAR Cup season as the clear favorite to win the title, and Kyle Busch, among the second tier of pre-season betting choices, find themselves mired in mediocrity ahead of this week’s race in Richmond.

Opening at 5/1 odds in SuperBook USA’s championship futures market, Harvick is now listed at 10/1. Busch is offered at the same price, lengthened from an 8/1 opener. Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, and Brad Keselowski all shared that same opening number.

While Busch and Harvick are first and third in average finish, respectively, over the last five races at Richmond Raceway, both drivers are also 10/1 to win Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Six drivers are listed ahead of them with single-digit odds.

RELATED: NASCAR BetCenter | Betting odds for Richmond Raceway

Neither Harvick nor Busch are rated as competitive enough this week to be paired in SuperBook matchup props against anyone besides each other. The Harvick vs. Busch matchup is priced as a coin flip, either side offered at -110 (bet $110 to win $100).

Harvick, who sits in eighth place in the standings, has six top-10 finishes but just two top fives, the most recent of which came at Homestead in the third race of the season. He has not led a lap since the season-opening Daytona 500.

Busch, 11th in the standings, has been worse, with just two top fives, four top 10s and seven laps led all season, all on the Bristol dirt.

Something is not quite right with either the No. 4 Ford or the No. 18 Toyota.

“It’s been obvious from the get-go Stewart-Haas, for whatever reason, they’re off on speed this year,” Ed Salmons, VP of risk management at the SuperBook, said Tuesday of Harvick’s team. “Speed like that is not going to win a NASCAR race.”

Whatever is plaguing Harvick appears to be affecting all the drivers in the Stewart-Haas garage, as Aric Almirola, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe all reside at 24th or lower in the points race standings

But while Harvick’s issues seem to be equipment-related, Joe Gibbs Racing cars have been among the fastest on the circuit. Hamlin sits atop the standings and has finished in the top five in seven of eight races. Truex is second in points and has two wins in 2021.

Even Gibbs’ Christopher Bell has been better than Busch, whose 10/1 odds this week at Richmond and last week at Martinsville are telling.

RELATED: Driver stats for Richmond Raceway

“He used to be like 5/2 to win Martinsville. He was such a big favorite, and now he can’t even run top five and his teammates are running one, two, three the whole race,” Salmons said. “I don’t know what to make of it. He’s got a new crew chief this year, and whatever happened last year with his crew chief, he threw him under the bus and used that as the excuse, and so far this year nothing’s really changed.

“You got an answer for me on that? I’d love to know,” the bookmaker wondered.

I wish I did, Ed.

Will they finally get it together?

Sure, they’ve been struggling early, but it may be too early to count out either Harvick or Busch.

“You see this often where a team just gets way behind,” Salmons said of Stewart-Haas. “…. But that organization is just too big for this to continue.”

Professional NASCAR bettor Zack White said last week, before Harvick’s ninth-place run at Martinsville, “I’m just not sure if Stewart-Haas has maybe slipped a little bit this year. (But) I can’t make that leap and say, ‘Oh man, Harvick’s lost it’, because I think he’s gonna win races this year for sure.”

Salmons, though, doesn’t see it turning around in Richmond.

“Basically, what you see in Las Vegas and what you see in Phoenix, that’s going to translate over probably until May. …. So I’m not really expecting anything from Harvick yet. You still think at some point they’ll figure this stuff out, but I don’t think it’s going to happen now.”

As for the No. 18, Salmons makes a cross-sport analogy for his oddsmaking prudence.

“Kyle Busch is kind of like (Rory) McIlroy in golf,” he said. “You never really want to raise his odds too high because you think he’ll eventually get it together. But it just doesn’t seem to happen.”

Marcus DiNitto is a writer and editor living in Charlotte, North Carolina. He has been covering sports for nearly two-and-a-half decades and sports betting for more than 10 years. His first NASCAR betting experience was in 1995 at North Wilkesboro Speedway, where he went 0-for-3 on his matchup picks. Read his articles and follow him on Twitter; do not bet his picks.